Davis Cup Competition

PicturePhoto courtesy of Wiki Commons, Author B20180

Competition: it is at the heart of all sports and especially tennis. Whether at the amateur level or on a professional circuit, players fiercely compete for personal glory and a chance to etch their names onto the trophies and record books.

But the sport is not entirely individual. The Davis Cup is an annual international team event on the men’s professional circuit contested in a knock-out format. Organized by the International Tennis Federation (ITF), an organization separate from the Association of Tennis Professionals, the competition brings together players of like nationalities to represent their country and compete for the chance to win the prestigious Davis Cup title. The only event on the professional circuit that combines nationality and competition—besides the Olympics—Davis Cup is a chance for players to not only represent themselves, but also their nations and do so in concert with their compatriots.

The Davis Cup Round of 16 stage occurred two weeks ago, and all of the buzz was around the top players—or lack thereof. The biggest headline was that Roger Federer was going to be playing an exhibition match against Grigor Dimitrov at Madison Square Garden the following week. Roger Federer, a member of the last year’s victorious Swiss Davis Cup team, elected to play the exhibition match rather than help his national team defend their title. To top it off, Stanislas Wawrinka, the number two Swiss player and another member of last year’s winning team, also did not play. The Swiss Davis Cup team, without its top players running through what might have been an easy tie, lost to Belgium.

Comparing similar international competitions in other sports, such as the World Cup whose prestige attracts players from every corner of the world, players make numerous sacrifices for the chance to represent their countries on the international stage. Davis Cup has been, and has the potential to be once again, the tennis’ equivalent to the World Cup. Maybe it is because tennis is such an individual sport or that many players leave their native countries for training purposes, but whatever the reason, it is clear that Davis Cup is waning within the tennis world.

As hard as it might be to believe now, Davis Cup was once a prestigious competition and one in which many took pride in participating. Arthur Ashe, a repeated participant in Davis Cup and an eventual captain of the U.S. team, described the experience of “hearing the umpire call his name” during a Washington, D.C. match as “thrilling” and his sentiment was not uncommon among participants. Given the political climate of the late twentieth century, which included such events as Apartheid in South Africa and the Cold War, the meaning of Davis Cup was amplified for many and the privilege of being able to represent one’s country was seen as not only as a duty, but a political statement. Of course, there were those who refused the role, like Jimmy Connors who simply chose not to participate. But for the most part, Davis Cup was viewed as an obligation, not a choice.

Roger Federer is just a single example of a player bypassing participation in the tournament. Over the past decade, this has become a trend: players opting out of Davis Cup competition in favor of the world tour. Roger Federer characterized his Davis Cup participation as “a box that must be ticked off.” Similarly, Andy Murray recently discussed the dilemma most players face in choosing between their physical health and rest time and committing to extra play in Davis Cup. These comments prompt an examination of what has caused the drop off in Davis Cup participation.

One important reason could be the increase in tour events throughout the season. Ashe touched on this in the late 1980s, saying that in the early stages of the modern professional circuit, the only main tournaments that professionals worried about were the Grand Slams and Davis Cup. With the rapid proliferation of other tournaments and the associated tournament tier system, the tour shifted focus to be more about money and results rather than Davis Cup. Another consideration is the grueling, physical transformation of the game over the past several years, players – as Andy Murray pointed out – must keep their physical health as the top priority.

Nevertheless, Davis Cup is the only true opportunity that players have on an annual basis to represent their country. But the ultimate truth is that Davis Cup has lost its value in the eyes of participants, who value sustained results on the larger stages of the sport over a monthly weekend commitment to their nation. It is going to take a change in the mindsets of the players and perhaps the ATP and ITF to restore the Davis Cup competition to its former prestige and glory.

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